District continues to defend charter enrollment caps in court

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Even though a legal issue hasn’t been settled, the Walter D. Palmer Charter School in Northern Liberties received $1.3 million in redirected state aid in April that the District maintains the school is not entitled to.

State Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis ordered the payment, finding that the District overreached its authority when it set a cap on the number of students Palmer could enroll – taking the side of charters in a dispute with the District over their right to expand.

The District has sought to curb charter growth in the face of increasing budget pressure, but charter schools are fighting back in court.

The District had capped Palmer’s enrollment at 675 students, and said it wasn’t entitled to money for more. The charter school however, continued adding grade levels and reached an enrollment of 925. It cited a 2008 amendment to the charter law that banned enrollment caps not agreed to by the charter.

The District maintains that Palmer did agree to the enrollment cap. But Walter Palmer, the founder of the school, said he signed his charter that included the cap "under duress. If we had not signed it, we may not have been created."

Tomalis found that the Palmer school was entitled to funding for students enrolled beyond the cap since 2008.

The District applied for a temporary stay of payment, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied it. Commonwealth Court is still considering the merits of the case.

"It has become more and more explicit" that "you can’t cap a charter school," said Palmer.

Seven other charter schools are also individually suing the District over caps. Their cases are in "pretrial discovery," according to District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs.

Among other arguments, the District maintains that the law governing the state takeover of the District supersedes the charter law.